this sounds like a question for venkatesh

It seems that Venkatesh is on a roll with his rogue sociologist thing. He already has an “ask a thug” feature on the Freakonomics blog, but really, he should have an “ask a rogue sociologist” feature.

From the NYT, comes this sad story and sociological (and legal) question about pro surfer Emery Kauanui, who was beaten to death by a group of five men in La Jolla, who were supposedly members of the “Bird Rock Bandits”. The thing is, the Bird Rock Bandits are not some rough-and-tumble street gang like you’d expect: they are all white, and look like privileged college frat boys who are the gatekeepers to their affluent, exclusive neighborhood:

But last spring, Mr. Kauanui was beaten to death, and five young men from La Jolla, all in their 20s, were charged in his murder. In court last week, prosecutors said that because the men were members of the Bird Rock Bandits, they should be prosecuted under tough state laws that apply to criminal street gangs.

The men have pleaded not guilty, suggesting that Mr. Kauanui’s death was an accident, and they deny that their group is a gang. At a hearing that began Wednesday, in San Diego Superior Court, their lawyers are seeking to have the gang-related allegations — so-called enhancements that can result in much stiffer penalties at sentencing — dropped.

“They are as much a gang as any fraternity,” said Mary Ellen Attridge, the lawyer for one of the men, Seth Cravens, 22.

Some La Jollans say these local groups have moved beyond the adolescent high jinks of the past. The Bird Rock Bandits, named after a La Jolla neighborhood, have members who have begun to emulate the Hollywood version of street gangs, the residents say, complete with drug dealing and premeditated violence.

The California penal code defines a gang as a group of three or more people with a common name, an identifying symbol and a primary activity of committing crime.

“The law doesn’t look at socioeconomic background,” said Paul Levikow, a spokesman for the San Diego district attorney’s office. “It looks at actions.”

Still, some residents say the Bird Rock Bandits represented a departure: Their brand of violence went beyond the one-on-one fights that sometimes break out on the beach, and their victim in this case, Mr. Kauanui, was himself a local.

“This was Lord of the Flies,” said Tim Bessell, 50, a La Jolla-born surfboard shaper. “They may have been playing make-believe as a gang, but in their case, it came true.”

Others have found it implausible that prosecutors are equating a beach clique, however unpleasant, to a criminal street gang.

“They weren’t gangsters,” says Richard Kenvin, 47, a filmmaker who grew up surfing Windansea. “They were gangsta chic.”

Among the gang-related factors that prosecutors are asking the judge to take into consideration is the spray-painting of “BRB” on walls around town; the frequent flashing of hand signs by members forming the letter B; and the writing on MySpace by a user going by the name Bird Rock Bandits, not long before Mr. Kauanui died, that “this is gonna be a … bloodbath of a summer.”

One acquaintance of the five men told the police that “it was all planned out,” according to a transcript of his statement. “They were going to jump him. They were trying to be a gang.”

Yet where the prosecution sees a premeditated attack, the defense sees an accident. The five men were all friends with Mr. Kauanui, defense lawyers say. There is no evidence of a hierarchy within the group, no initiation rituals, the lawyers say, and the weapons found in the men’s homes were basically harmless — pocketknives of various sizes, a BB gun and a potato launcher.

“This is not the Bloods and the Crips,” said Ms. Attridge, the lawyer for Mr. Cravens.

It does not have to be, said Mr. Levikow, the spokesman for the prosecution.

“They’re not standing on the corner selling crack or pimping, but they were terrorizing the community,” he said.

So sad, but interesting. This turns upside down most popular conceptions of gangs as being Black or Latino–“dirty” outfits of vicious criminals. The murderers look clean scrubbed and handsome. Because of that this is just an accident? Also interesting is the allusion to “Lord of the Flies”–another instance of weird social norm changes, turning beautiful, good boys into violent, vicious beings. Because it’s not rational that a group of tidy, affluent, educated white men would do such a thing, so this had to be an accident, and could not have been premeditated. Who would want to debase themselves and emulate the lowest strata of society?

Not to deconstruct everything, but this article bothers me. It has important legal ramifications–gang charges are serious, and RICO charges can attach and significantly increase the criminal and civil penalties. Acting like a gang is not a joke, and if these young men want to indulge in the violent, terrorizing behavior of “real” street gangs, then they should be treated as a gang, and prosecuted to the fullest extent allowed by law.

I don’t know what the sociological definitions are for constitutes a gang, but the legal definition seems to fit. Just because it doesn’t seem to “fit” with the popular conception of gangs as racial minority “thugs” doesn’t mean that this was a mere “accident” or forgivable aberration in the behavior of otherwise upstanding white citizens. This was not a case of good white people going crazy in a Lord of the Flies moment of sudden norm shifting. If this were a group of young Black, Latino, or Asian men, the gang allegations would not be in dispute. What these men did was reprehensible. Gang rapes, gang killings–group violence is simply abhorrent, and if this was premeditated, as it appears to be (they left one party to go to Kauanui’s house), then this is cold-blooded murder, and if this was part of their gang’s plans to perpetrate violence and terror, then the murder was gang-related. The legal questions of premeditation, and gang-relatedness may be decided by a fact-finding jury, but what about the sociological ones? What do you think?

3 thoughts on “this sounds like a question for venkatesh”

  1. I think sociologists tackled questions like these when Venkatesh was in diapers – see William J. Chambliss’s career for a series of examples.

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  2. The legal definition is something along the lines of 3 or more people who form a group for the purpose of committing crime.

    Street gangs were found as early as the 1600’s when groups of roving peasants attacked villages and travelers in England. In the United States, most urban neighborhoods were (and often still are) divided by ethnic groups (Italian, Jewish, Irish, German, Polish, etc.). Gangs from the late 1800s and early 1900s were comprised primarily of immigrants who committed crimes and represented the bottom of the economic and cultural scale. The members of gangs in the mid-1900s, however, appeared to have a slightly different composition, primarily comprised of racial minorities – both African-American and Latino, but still representing those at the bottom of the economic scale.

    Gangs have evolved to where they are today — a very real threat to the safety and security of our communities. The gang “problem” is no longer simply an immigrant problem, and gang membership is increasingly represented across ethnic and racial differences. Gang members come from all walks of life, represent a variety of household incomes, and often have stable households (aside from the existence of a gang member in them). Gang members are individuals from many ethnicities, races, and nationalities. Gangs have evolved to become what the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention referred to (back in 2000) as “an increasingly significant social policy issue.”

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